Courtesy Behind the Scenes
A group of Yale School of Drama alumni created a six-episode web series in an effort to promote conversation about American politics and participate in media dialogue about Tuesday’s election.
Titled “My America,” the series is comprised of YouTube episodes uploaded in the five days leading up to the election, as well as the Election Day itself. Each installment is less than eight minutes long, filmed over the course of one day and plays out in an Uber. While each episode is not connected to the previous one, they all illustrate a variety of perspectives surrounding modern American politics.
“Uber is a space for specific dialogue that you don’t get elsewhere, because you encounter strangers in their own car,” said director and co-scriptwriter Anna Jones DRA ’06.
Jones described writing the script with her husband J.S. Davall DRA ’08 as a “cathartic act” in response to the international turmoil the two had witnessed over the summer, including terrorist attacks in Europe, England’s exit from the European Union and the death of several African American men as a result of police brutality.
The idea for setting “My America” in an Uber came from Davall’s own experience driving an Uber. In the approximately 1,900 trips he has made, he said he is struck by the people he meets, and that there are experiences that leave an impression on him. One morning, Davall said that he picked up a couple and took them to a pastry shop, and they began fighting in his backseat.
“It made me aware of how many voices and values people have,” he said. “Even if you’re a couple, you have different values and it made me sensitive to those stories.”
Jones and Davall decided to write a script based on a variation of the experiences that have made impressions on them, including an incident involving a couple getting into a food fight over their different views on GOP candidate Donald Trump.
The project was funded by Jones and Davall, who said production costs were relatively low, totaling $20,000. The team is also in the process of fundraising and has made up $5,000 of its initial investment so far.
Assistant producer Sophia Jennings was assigned to the project a week after she joined Picrow Productions, the production company that produced “My America.” She helped the writers develop the script and structured social media marketing efforts.
Jennings said the video series’ key goal was to reach a diverse international audience beyond the United States, as the U.S. election results will have global ramifications.
“We’re very thoughtful about the fact that there is not one good or bad character, as well as that there are pro-Trump, pro-Hillary and non-voters watching,” she said.
This principle of neutrality manifests in the series’ creative production decisions: the low contrast coloring of the first two episodes emphasizes white and blue tones. Jennings said the majority of the show plays out in the “liminal space” of an Uber, and noted that the show is about getting people together to talk about issues when they are not in a clear environment but in an “in-between” space.
Davall said he is grateful to have Yale as a resource and a pool of talent to draw from during the fast-moving production. There are seven Yale School of Drama alumni involved in the making of the series.
“It’s nice to sit in L.A. shooting scenes with actors who have gone through similar training at the same school,” he said. “Although they may not have known each other personally, they went through the same rigorous training and therefore know each other spiritually.”
Asaad Kelada DRA ’64, who joined the team as a director, echoed this, describing the collaborative project as tangible evidence of how graduates of the Drama School can put what they have learned into effect and benefit from each other’s resources. Kelada, who also helped the team with casting, said “My America” was a welcome opportunity for him to be actively involved in something “so insightful and exceptionally crafted.”
“We don’t only share a course of study, but a sensibility of how to look at the world and what we’re supposed to be doing with the art form we have selected for ourselves,” he said.
Jennings mentioned that there were possibilities of big-name celebrities featuring in the web series, but the arrangements fell through due to the tight filming schedule of “My America.” Still, she said she sees this as a benefit as cast members do not overshadow each other.
The show’s importance, Jennings argued, is that it reaches the same audience as online journalism, without the international time delays on platforms such as Netflix.
“If something comes out on Netflix in the U.S., it’ll come out later in Indonesia,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about that with YouTube.”
But just as the audience and the message of “My America” are similar to journalism, so is the production style. Jennings described the challenge of translating theatre to the web, explaining that the recreation of the theatre experience has been the hardest task. She added that shooting a scene, writing the next scene, editing the show and sending emails for fundraising would often all be happening simultaneously.
“It feels like opening night every single day,” she said.